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Monthly Archives: June 2010

Teaching is the best way to learn

As a place to live, Blue Ridge has many lovely qualities, but the small town was so devoid of opportunity in some areas (at least for me) that it made me feel a bit like Dorothy running through the poppy fields in theWizard of Oz. Poor Dorothy is inspired and determined to get to the Emerald City, but on route she becomes transfixed by the beauty of the wild flowers. She stops to admire the beautiful red petals, totally unaware that they are potent with a heady, dangerous aftereffect that distracts her from her goals. Before you know it, the beauty around her has cast a spell and she falls sound asleep – the Emerald city and all the things she set off to accomplish are lulled to rest along with her body, heart and mind. In that story, Dorothy is awakened, thanks to interference of a good witch who sends snow to break the spell.

I won’t get into what became “snow” was for me, but suffice to say I was fighting sleep while I lived in the country. I was so enamored with nature and the calm of living at a gentle pace, that I lost the drive to accomplish many things I believe make my life worthy and meaningful.  I’m not suggesting that ambition is ultimately important – if anything, the older I get the more personal ambition fades, but I do believe continuing to grow as an individual and sharing your unique gifts with others is an important part of living to your greatest potential.

 When I first moved to the country, I volunteered to teach illiterate adults to read. For three years I worked with one particular woman three afternoons a week. Eventually that project came to a graceful end. Always wanting involvement in some kind of community service or humanitarian project to keep my karma in check, I got it into my head that I should get involved with teaching again, be it through writing or dance. I began by offering my services as a dance teacher to local schools free of charge. No one returned my calls, much less offered me a class. So, with my MFA freshly in hand, I offered to teach a writing class for free at two local colleges, the arts association, and for half a dozen individual groups (senior centers, the library and/or the Kiwanis club). No one was interested in my offerings in this avenue either, and after repeated failed attempts to give away my time and services, I simply gave up. Volunteering may be high on my life priority list, but as long as I was living in that particular town, the best I could do was to join a church and participate  n bake sale fundraisers, etc. Not exactly my ideal outlet for giving, considering I long to share my specific talents not just for others, but as away of honoring the arts I love.  It was a very frustrating issue for me.

Since free classes were a no-go, I offered a short journaling class at the new yoga studio. The session wasn’t very organized or well received and if anything, all it did was shake my self-confidence as a writing teacher. Frankly, I sucked at it, but in retrospect I can see that life was falling apart for me, so I couldn’t really give it my all. The project limped along, barely resembling my vision of sharing writing with others, but it did fuel my desire to someday teach people who might otherwise never have the opportunity to explore the power of words. I didn’t know how or when, but I did believed that someday I’d share writing with others and introduce them to new methods of communicating and exploring their feelings.

 A few days after I moved back to Sarasota, I called the Senior Friendship Center to make my standard offer to teach for free. Having hit dead ends so many times in the last few years, I didn’t expect things to unfold so easily, but lo and behold, within a day I was offered an opportunity to lead an ongoing writing class. It just so happens that the former teacher of a long-standing writing class had passed away in Dec. and the student’s had been trying to stick together sans official leadership. My timing was perfect – but life has away of giving you what you need when you need it most.

 When the class discovered I had an MFA and years of involvement in literary endeavors, they welcomed me with open arms and hearty appreciation, so I took the responsibility to live up to my resume very to heart. , I’ve been teaching fiction and memoir writing to a group of seniors every Monday for two months now.  Like every volunteer project I’ve ever gotten involved in, I feel great about the experience on many levels. I certainly learn as much as I teach.  Then there is the fact that, for me, a life well-lived involves giving of yourself, and I don’t mean just doing thoughtful things for your loved ones or getting involved in community projects that happen to further your work ambitions (although I’ve done that too). Like most people, I’ve embraced generic giving. I sponsor a child from a third world country. I donate to worthy causes, such as purchasing livestock for poverty stricken families in Indonesia each year. I’m quick to volunteer for the one-shot project, helping at a school or organization’s fundraiser. I take things to good-will. I walked 60 miles to raise money for cancer. You get the point. These endeavors are lovely, but face it; this kind of giving is easy because it involves limited commitment. It’s the thankless long haul volunteering – being willing to show up long after the initial flood of “aren’t I a nice person” feelings fade, that defines true selflessness.

 I saw this class as an opportunity to walk my talk, so, I made a pact with myself that I would show up, week after week, even if it meant going out of my way to arrange the rest of my life around this once a week commitment, (which is no small feat considering I’m struggling to piece together enough work to sustain me.) I simply sense this project is important -for me and for others, and for the as yet undefined future that awaits me.

Getting involved in the Senior Friendship Center has opened my eyes to an entire world of mature, active adults and the unique struggles people deal with in their golden years. I lived in Sarasota for 18 years, yet I did so completely unaware such a remarkable, free community resource existed here for the elderly. (In fact, it boggles the mind how many wonderful things this town has to offer that I’ve stumbled on now that I’m exploring it anew, approaching the area with fresh eyes and a good attitude.)

 The first time I walked into the center I was floored by the diverse offerings. Each afternoon a three-piece band of seniors performs. People come and sit in the great open lobby to enjoy live blues or big band music. They lounge around on couches or sit at tables with friends, some sit regally in wheelchairs, tapping their feet to the music and calling out to the band members as if they are all the best of friends (which indeed, I’m guessing they are). There are always a few couples dancing on the ballroom floor and I can’t help but stop to admire them. I wonder if I’m watching married couples that have been dancing together for 60 years, or new couples holding hands for the first time- a unique senior dating experience brought about because time marched on and rocked their world, disengaging them from beloved partners or friends. The romance in both scenarios moves me to tears. I’ve spent a lifetime watching young people move to music, but lately, the image of elderly people dancing strikes me as remarkably poignant. It fascinates me that regardless of a person’s age, music can creep into the soul and the body responds. We dance! 

At the far corner of the great room, dozens of men play pool on 3 busy tables. A room to the side features a handful of women playing scrabble with great intent. There is a wii station set up and inevitably, a senior is always hooked up, swinging his or her arms and legs and laughing at whatever challenge they’ve taken on. A convenient snack bar provides refreshments in one corner and/or people can always go into the large cafeteria for lunch or dinner where another musician serenades patrons on a piano. At the top of the curved staircase a busy computer lab invites dozens of people to pound the keyboard – they work on the Internet or write stories (in many cases, for my class).  Several rooms shoot off from this hallway, where all kinds of classes are offered throughout the week: art, writing, painting, scrapbooking, craft and special interest projects etc….The center offers free yoga, fitness and dance classes as well. It’s simply an amazing place for older people to gather and feel active and connected to others.

 Each Monday when I arrive, I pick up an envelope and a sign-insheet at the main desk and head to my assigned classroom. Smiles left and right greet me. Most days, I can’t help but think that life passes by in an instant, and it won’t be long until I’ll be stepping into a place such as this for entertainment rather than as a volunteer. It kind of makes me feel I am paying my dues in advance. I always think about my mother-in-law when I pass the scrabble room. Ever since her husband passed away she’s been consumed with debilitating loneliness. A place such as this would provide her with the companionship and activity she needs to feel life affirmation again. Friends and activities keep a person young at heart and I know she would have loved the music and the people.  She would kick butt in the scrabble room too.

Once I get to my classroom, I move tables and chairs into the center of the room while the music floats upstairs from the great room lending subtle inspiration to the project at hand. I wait for students to arrive. When they do, we share news of our lives. Our friendship grows stronger with each lesson; partly because of the time we spend together, but also because sharing heartfelt words is a bonding experience.

I structured the class to follow the format of a traditional writing critique group. Each week students bring in samples of their writing to share with the class, and after their reading, we open the floor to constructive criticism. After everyone has shared their perceptions about the writing, (and I insist on MFA rules of conduct so the discussion stays positive and helpful) I offer the teacher’s view, giving suggestions and advice for developing a stronger voice or evolving the writing to be more effective. When time permits, I end with a writing exercise. I always have something prepared, so even if we don’t get time to write in class, I pass out my handout and encourage the students to try the assignment at home.

 Amazingly, (at least to me) I’m really a good writing teacher. Apparently I have a wealth of information stored in my head from all those years of taking seminars and going through the grueling MFA process, and it’s all come together at last. When I look at a student’s work, I see the weaknesses with clarity, and the words I need to explain how to rectify the problems are right on my tongue. Several of the students in my class are also involved in writing classes at Eckerd college and Vo-tech, and they insist I’m not only inspirational, but that I explain things in terms they consider remarkably easy to understand. One student has even gotten into the habit of bringing me assignments from a college creative writing class he’s in, because he likes how I explain what the teacher expects.  I enjoy helping him prepare for that class as well as my own.

 It is fair to say I began with serious concerns about my ability to teach writing effectively, but thanks to the praise and the results I’m seeing from my little class, my confidence is growing. I’m sharing the act of writing with others. It’s been a long haul to get here, so I’m savoring every minute.

 I will eventually write with more detail about this adventure, or at least the lessons I’m learning along the way, but I will not go into detail about my individual students out of respect for their privacy. I do think I need to share a short description of the class dynamics, so for this one time, I’ll mention a generic overview of the kinds of students involved. My class so far includes one poet (also a visual artist) who is writing moving prose about growing up black in the south, one woman writing a musical about homeless people (bringing in profound and ultimately creative work that she jots down on the back of napkins and on paper plates– It’s a hoot, and she has no clue how good her work is), a student struggling with serious life upheaval because her husband left her after 40 years of marriage (she is writing as ahealing activity, and it’s all I can do not to lose it each time she reads her gushing accounts of her confusion and pain. I not only feel empathy for her, but I can relate,), a man who turns in a memoir piece one week and wild paranormal fiction piece the next, and there are always a few shy drop-ins. I’m told that when the seasonal residents return in the fall, the class will fill with many new faces.  I can’t wait.

 And so, a new chapter of personal “giving” begins for me. I’ll continue to show up week in and week out because, like all new experiences, there are lessons to learn by teaching. For some reason, I sense this particular activity is important – it has volumes to teach me about living, life and people – lessons I am primed and ready to receive at this stage of my life. Lessons I need to keep going.